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Chloe Effron

The Tragic History of RC Cola

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Chloe Effron

Who drinks RC Cola, anyway?

It’s a question Coke and Pepsi drinkers have been asking for decades. In the prolonged marketing battle that began in the '70s and saw the beloved major brands duke it out via celebrity endorsements, rewards promotions (Pepsi Stuff, anyone?), an onslaught of advertisements, and even a race into space, RC Cola remained on the sidelines, a quiet blue and red can that seemed content to simply be.

Fact is, RC has had loyal fans throughout its more than 100-year history. Its roots go deep in the south, where drinking one with a Moon Pie is a blue-collar tradition that’s still popular today. There’s even a song that celebrates the pairing. RC also has a presence internationally, in countries such as Estonia, Thailand, and Iceland. It’s currently one of the top-selling soda brands in the Philippines.

But the number of RC drinkers could have been much, much higher. In an alternate—and completely plausible—universe, it would have given Coke and Pepsi a run for their money. At one point, it did. Believe it or not, Royal Crown Cola used to be one of the most innovative companies in the beverage industry. It came out with the first canned soda, the first caffeine-free soda, and the first 16-ounce soda. It was the first to take diet cola mainstream, and the first to stage nationwide taste tests.

Given its long and pioneering history, RC deserved to be more than the middling soda brand it is today. In an industry that lives and dies by marketing, RC didn’t do nearly enough. But its failure wasn’t just due to lack of initiative. It was also a case of supremely bad luck, bad judgment, and a fateful ingredient known as cyclamate.

Like its main rival, Coca-Cola, RC Cola also started in Georgia, in the town of Columbus. It was a disagreement with Coca-Cola, in fact, that led a man named Claud Hatcher to develop what would become the Royal Crown Cola Company. Hatcher was a pharmacist and a grocery wholesaler who, along with his father, ran the Hatcher Grocery Company. In the early 1900s, the Hatchers sold a lot of Coca-Cola to their customers—so much, that Claud felt he was entitled to a discount or some sort of commission acknowledging his contribution to the company. The local Coke representative, however, denied the request, knowing full well Coke was the most popular soda in the country and not one to be pushed around by its customers. Frustrated, Hatcher told the representative he’d purchased his last case of Coca-Cola, and vowed to develop his own brand.

After months spent tinkering in the basement of Hatcher Grocery, Claud came up with Royal Crown Ginger Ale, an effervescent alternative to Coke’s caramel-colored (and formerly cocaine-laced) bestseller. The drink, with its regal-sounding name, proved quite popular, and soon Hatcher and his father ditched the grocery gig to become full-time soda bottlers. Claud’s next development was Chero-Cola, a cherry-flavored cola that would grow the company into a legitimate soda maker and, inevitably, put him in direct competition with the brand he used to sell.

In the early 1900s, like today, Coca-Cola was far and away the most profitable soda company in the United States. And with that success came numerous imitators eager to cash in on the market it had created. According to Tristan Donovan, author of Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, these included knockoffs like Candy-Cola, Kos-Kola, and Coke-Ola. There was even a cola called Klu Ko Kolo, made to attract those suddenly interested in the Ku Klux Klan after the group was featured in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation. Coke was hardly amused. To maintain its dominance in the industry, the company began suing these imitators for trademark infringement. Over the next three decades, Coca-Cola sued more than 500 copycat manufacturers, according to Donovan, and won more often than not.

Caught in the crosshairs were Claud Hatcher and Chero-Cola, which Coke argued could not use the term “cola” in its name. Hatcher fought the lawsuit, and continued to fight it for several years while simultaneously building Chero-Cola’s distribution to more than 700 franchise bottlers. His soda was no mere imitator, Hatcher would claim time and again, and he would not be bullied out of business.

In 1923, a judge ruled in Coca-Cola’s favor, saying that Chero-Cola was in violation of Coke’s trademark. That meant Hatcher had to drop “cola” from his company’s name, thereby costing him valuable brand recognition. A drink called “Chero” just didn’t sound the same, and sure enough, Chero sales slipped. After a few years Hatcher changed the company’s name to that of his most popular fruit drink, Nehi (pronounced “knee-high”).

The Great Depression put a dent in Nehi’s sales, just as it did for other soda companies. To make matters worse, Claud Hatcher died in 1933, leaving Nehi in the hands of its sales director, H.R. Mott. What looked to be a disaster, though, turned out to be just the opportunity the company needed. Mott was a shrewd businessman. Immediately after taking over, he jettisoned poor-performing drinks and focused the company’s efforts on top sellers. He also re-introduced Chero-Cola without the cherry flavoring, and under a new name—one that, after two turbulent decades, harkened back to the company’s beginnings. In 1934, Nehi came out with Royal Crown, and over the next several years its sales increased tenfold.

A 1943 ad featuring Rita Hayworth. Jose Roitberg via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The middle of the 20th century brought one win after another for Nehi. In 1944, the courts ruled that Coke did not, in fact, own the word “cola,” thus allowing Royal Crown to become Royal Crown Cola, or RC Cola. With nationwide distribution and sales on the up and up, Nehi shoveled money into print and television ads featuring stars like Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Shirley Temple, and Lucille Ball. “You Bet RC Tastes Best!” magazine ads crowed. And this wasn’t just an empty boast: Nehi had staged public taste tests across the country pitting RC against competitors Coke and Pepsi, and declared itself the winner. It was the first time a beverage company had ever done such a promotion. Whether or not the tests were rigged in some way is up for debate; what mattered was that people believed them.

Slowly, steadily, RC muscled its way into soda fountains and onto grocery store shelves. To stay top-of-mind with consumers, it continued to innovate. In 1954, it became the first company to nationally distribute soda in aluminum cans. Shortly after, it began selling soda in 16-ounce bottles as an alternative size for thirsty fans. In 1959, Nehi changed its name to match its bestselling product, becoming the Royal Crown Cola Company.

But while Royal Crown had made significant progress, it would continue to trail Coke and Pepsi so long as it continued to sell a similar product. What it needed was something new. What it needed was a game changer.

In 1952, the founder of a sanitarium in Williamsburg, Brooklyn named Hyman Kirsch invented a sugar-free soda called No-Cal. Available in ginger ale and black cherry, No-Cal was made specifically for patients in Kirsch's sanitarium who were either diabetic or suffering from heart ailments. Kirsch quickly discovered that his drink had a much wider appeal, and along with his son began making other flavors, like chocolate, root beer, and cherry. The two sold No-Cal to local stores and quickly built up a distribution network that extended throughout New York and the northeast. Since Kirsch wasn’t a businessman, however, he struggled to expand beyond the regional market. He also continued marketing No-Cal mainly toward diabetic customers, further limiting his reach.

Kirsch’s success caught the eye of the Royal Crown Cola Company. In the mid '50s, it began secretly developing its own diet soft drink—one that would appeal not just to diabetics, but to an entire nation of increasingly calorie-conscious consumers. While other food and beverage companies continued to push everything sweet, salty, and delicious, RC recognized a budding demand for healthier choices.

After a few years RC came out with Diet Rite, a drink that the company believed would be the breakthrough it so desperately needed. Test markets had emphatically confirmed its appeal. One, in South Carolina, saw supermarket managers clamoring for the product. “In Greenville, S.C., where we had been running a poor third behind Coke and Pepsi, we actually had grocery store managers getting into their cars and chasing down RC trucks to get Diet Rite on their shelves,” one RC rep noted.

What could cause such a reaction? It wasn’t just that Diet Rite was nearly calorie-free—it’s that it was nearly calorie-free and tasted strikingly similar to the real thing. The key ingredient—the one Kirsch had first used in No-Cal—was an alternative sweetener called cyclamate that was 30 times sweeter than sugar. First developed by a student at the University of Illinois in 1937, it was initially sold as a tabletop sweetener. In 1958, the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval, paving the way for its use as a mass-market ingredient. The timing couldn’t have been better for Royal Crown.

In a particularly shrewd bit of marketing, the company made sure to sell Diet Rite just like real cola: In the same slender bottles for a nickel each, or as a six pack. It also made sure to put the word “cola” on its labels. Consumers wanted something different, RC executives figured, but not too different.

When Diet Rite hit shelves in 1962, it was a smashing success. Within a year and a half of its release, it had rocketed up to number four on the sales chart, behind Coke, Pepsi, and regular RC Cola. America, it turned out, was ready for what had for years seemed oxymoronic: a healthy soda. The rest of the industry was in something close to a state of shock. “So stunning was Diet-Rite Cola’s impact on the soft drink market in the early 1960s,” reported Georgia Trend, “that its acceptance could be compared to the beginnings of mighty Coca-Cola itself some 75 years earlier.”

A 1967 ad featuring ballet dancer Tanya Morgan. Mid-Century Pretty via Flickr // CC BY NC-2.0

Coke and Pepsi were caught completely off guard. Not only had they not anticipated the mainstream appeal of diet soda, they didn’t even have anything in the pipeline. Within a year, Coke would scramble to release TaB, which it also sweetened with cyclamate. Pepsi responded with Patio Cola, a diet soda aimed at women that also contained cyclamate, and which it would soon rebrand as Diet Pepsi. There were, predictably, numerous other fast followers to the market, including long-forgotten brands like LoLo, Coolo-Coolo, and Bubble-Up. In 1965, Coke came out with a citrus-flavored diet soda called Fresca.

None of them, however, could catch Diet Rite, which continued to build market share for Royal Crown Cola.

“RC had the dominant diet cola brand, and that was a very big deal,” Tristan Donovan tells mental_floss. “For RC, there was this sense of, ‘finally, we’ve broken through.’”

By the late '60s, Royal Crown owned 10 percent of the soda market. That was far from dominating, but it was still a very respectable figure, and the company was poised for further growth. By all accounts, the company that started in the basement of a small town grocery store was positioned to become a major player in the soda industry.

The rise of diet soda may have delighted soft drink manufacturers and American consumers, but it downright frightened the sugar industry. After decades of pumping its signature product into sodas, here was a comparable beverage that did away with sugar entirely. What if diet sodas continued to grow? What if all sodas became diet sodas? Ever resourceful, the industry searched for legal channels to undermine diet drinks.

In the mid-'60s, it began: the slow trickle of studies suggesting that cyclamate was hazardous. In 1964, a study linked cyclamate to cancer in animals, and raised the possibility that it could have adverse effects on humans. But the authors stopped short of linking the sweetener to specific conditions like cancer or birth defects. Royal Crown president W.H. Glenn dismissed the study as “nothing derogatory,” and other manufacturers echoed that sentiment. As the decade wore on, however, studies made more specific claims. In 1969, the decisive blow against cyclamate came in the form of two studies. One claimed that chicken eggs injected with cyclamate resulted in deformed chicks, while another found that rats given doses of cyclamate showed an increased risk of developing bladder tumors. The studies’ findings, splashed across newspapers and television screens nationwide, implicated cyclamate as a very dangerous ingredient.

“Everyone began saying, ‘Oh my god, diet soda’s going to give you cancer!’” Donovan says. “The market collapsed almost instantly.”

The FDA, meanwhile, had no choice but to remove its "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) classification for cyclamate. The diet soda industry went into a tailspin, plummeting from 20 percent of the market to less than 3 percent. Manufacturers frantically reformulated their drinks and tried to reassure consumers, all to no avail. Overnight, the diet soda craze had come to a standstill.

The downturn hit Royal Crown particularly hard. Diet Rite had been its star performer, the one advantage it had over Coke and Pepsi. Without it, all the company had was the nation’s third favorite cola, which on its own wasn’t going to gain any ground on its rivals. After a few weeks, the company re-released Diet Rite, this time sweetened with saccharine. But the taste—saccharine has a notoriously metallic tinge to it—wasn’t the same, and many people weren’t ready to come back to diet drinks anyway. Eventually, Coke and Pepsi re-entered the market with better formulas and marketing, and once again, Royal Crown Cola had merely served as the guinea pig for its competitors.

According to Donovan, the cyclamate backlash was the direct result of the sugar industry’s meddling. That lobby, he said, provided $600,000 in funding for the studies that doomed cyclamate, both of which are now seen as controversial because they involved exposing animals to much higher levels of the ingredient than any Diet Rite or TaB drinker could ever possibly imbibe. To get the same amount of cyclamate as the rats in one of the studies, for instance, you’d have to drink more than 500 diet drinks a day. Today, cyclamate is widely used as a sweetener in countries like Australia, South Africa, and throughout the European Union. Scientists around the world say it's safe for consumption, yet the results of the 1969 studies still linger. The United States, Japan, and 45 other countries have upheld their ban on the additive.

How could such dubious results be admissible? Donovan pointed to a legal loophole called the Delaney Clause, an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 established by a senator named James Delaney, who investigated insecticides and carcinogens in the food industry in the late '50s. The clause required the FDA to ban any additive found to “induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals.” As well-meaning as the Delaney Clause was, it didn’t outline restrictions on the amount of a certain ingredient that could be tested. No matter if it was a granule or a gallon, if it proved hazardous to human or animal health, the ingredient had to be pulled.

“The Delaney Clause was a very well-intentioned but poorly thought-out law,” Donovan says.

As unfortunate as Royal Crown’s luck was, its response in the years that followed didn’t help matters. Vowing to never again put so many resources behind a single product, the company began to diversify. It bought two fruit juice manufacturers, Texsun and Adams Packing. Then it took the truly bizarre step of purchasing seven home furnishing companies. What, exactly, the soda maker saw in that industry is unclear, but it must have been pretty compelling: By the mid-'70s, nearly a quarter of Royal Crown Cola’s business was tied up in making mirrors, picture frames, floor tiles, and cabinets.

The downhill slide accelerated. In 1976, Royal Crown bought the fast-food chain Arby’s. That acquisition, at least, made some sense, as it would give the company an outlet for its fountain sodas. But Royal Crown mismanaged the chain, introducing burgers and other conventional fast-food fare to a company that had made its name with roast beef sandwiches. In 1984, Victor Posner, a billionaire businessman who specialized in corporate takeovers, acquired Royal Crown, which by this time had dropped the “cola” in its name to become Royal Crown Companies. In the nine years Posner owned Royal Crown, he slashed the company’s marketing budget and battled executives over the company’s direction. In 1987, the government convicted him on tax evasion charges, and soon after investigated him for insider trading.

While Royal Crown was busy cutting costs and making lampshades, Coca-Cola and Pepsi were dumping millions into an unprecedented marketing arms race. Beginning in the mid-'70s, the two began one-upping each other with taste tests, rewards programs, TV ads, new products, and numerous other promotions. Pepsi unveiled Pepsi Stuff; Coke countered with Coke Rewards. Coke put Bill Cosby in its ads; Pepsi answered with the King of Pop. In 1985, after it found out that Coke was putting a specially engineered Coke can aboard the Challenger space shuttle, Pepsi quickly rigged up its own can and pressured NASA into letting it onboard. Neither can worked the way it was supposed to, and the astronauts complained about the gimmick. But no matter: The two companies had been to outer space.

From the consumer perspective, the cola wars looked to be two giants bent on destroying each other. The reality, though, was that both of them benefited from the exposure.

“The cola wars took sales away from any brands that weren’t Coca-Cola and Pepsi,” Donovan says. “At this point, nobody is even thinking about RC because they’re not in this race.”

With its limited ad budget, RC came out with some standard-issue TV spots showing people chugging from a bottle before pausing to smile at the camera. There were even some mildly amusing ads, including one in which prisoners “sentenced to a life of Coke or Pepsi” snuck cans and bottles of RC into their cells.

To most people, though, the more than 100-year-old brand was largely invisible.

An Onion headline from 1997 seemed to sum things up: "RC Cola Celebrates 10th Purchase." Through the '80s and into the '90s, Royal Crown continued to lose market share while its two main competitors gobbled it up. The company had a loyal following and national distribution, but in the eyes of a Coke-and-Pepsi nation, it was the loser, the perennial bronze medalist.

Things only got worse for RC. As the two cola giants continued to grow, they inked deals with retailers that guaranteed them ample shelf space. They offered special discounts to supermarkets and began paying slotting fees, a practice that still exists today. (If you’ve ever wondered why Coke and Pepsi dominate the soda aisle, it’s because they’re oftentimes paying for that real estate.)

"[Coke and Pepsi] started carving up the retail market and shutting RC out in the process," Donovan explains. "So not only was RC losing out on advertising, it was losing out on stores as well."

RC tried to wedge its way back into the fight. After the company got out from under Posner’s ownership, it gained a solid advertising and development budget. Its first attempt to jump-start sales came in 1995 with RC Draft, a so-called “premium” soda made with cane sugar. Unfortunately for RC, people didn’t see what was so “premium” about the drink, and within a year it was pulled from shelves. In 2000, Cadbury-Schweppes bought RC, then moved it over to its Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. In the years that followed, RC came out with a few souped-up colas—RC Edge and RC Kick—along with low-calorie options RC Ten and a re-branded Diet RC. None of the new products managed to move the dial, and today no RC product is anywhere near the best-seller charts.

So who drinks RC Cola these days? In addition to its southern fans, the brand has a presence in Chicago, where it’s served at Bears games and at pizzerias throughout the city, which often give out a free liter with orders. According to Encyclopizzeria, that arrangement began back in the '60s, when a creative local bottler got in good with local pie shops, figuring the pairing of RC and deep dish pizza would generate good vibes with customers. It did, and today many a Chicagoan has a soft spot for the underdog cola.

Aside from the Windy City, though, RC’s appeal seems tied to small town America and times gone by. “The company never shook its strictly southern, small-town image,” states the New Georgia Encyclopedia, which chronicles the state’s history. For fans of RC, that image as the overlooked, underappreciated casualty of the cola wars is just what they love about it. It’s the scrappy bargain brand—the un-hyped, unadorned alternative for true cola lovers.

Donovan, for one, believes RC’s narrative would have been much different had the cyclamate ban not happened. Diet Rite’s continued success could have given Royal Crown the confidence—not to mention the funds—needed to market more aggressively and continue innovating. Its name recognition could have grown, and its clout with restaurants and retailers along with it. Could it have joined Coke and Pepsi in the stratosphere of soda sales, or even have overtaken them?

"RC probably wouldn’t have had the resources of Coke or Pepsi," Donovan surmises, "but they could have held their own a lot better."

These days, being a top soda company isn’t something worth bragging about. The entire soft drink industry is declining, and has been for more than a decade as consumers opt for healthier choices. Over the past 20 years, sales of full-calorie soft drinks have fallen by more than 25 percent. Instead of one-upping each other, Coke and Pepsi are scrambling to stay relevant with a nation that’s rejecting their signature beverages. They’re expanding into juices and snacks, developing new zero-calorie soft drinks and dumping millions of dollars into advertising tying their brands to happiness, nostalgia, and other emotions that might transcend any worries about personal health.

Drinking less soda is surely a good thing. But for many people, there will always be something wonderful about a full-calorie, ice-cold cola. Whether it’s an everyday thing or an every-so-often treat, odds are most people will reach for a Coke or Pepsi. But if history had gone just a bit differently, they could be just as easily reaching for an RC Cola.

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Here’s Why Bells Are Always Ringing in Trader Joe’s
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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Trader Joe’s has attracted a devoted fan-base by doing things a little differently than your typical grocery store chain. But shoppers may not even realize that the company has done away with this ubiquitous supermarket feature.

As Business Insider recently noted, Trader Joe’s doesn’t use an intercom system. So instead of hearing “clean up in aisle 4” blaring overhead, customers shop to a soundtrack of ringing bells.

The nautical bells, which are situated at each register, are used by employees to communicate with one another. According to the company’s website, “blustery PA systems” didn’t fit the brand, so it borrowed inspiration from the maritime traders of a bygone era and developed its own Morse-like code.

If you hear one ring, that means an additional register needs to be opened. Two rings means that either a cashier or a customer has a question at checkout, and three signals a manager. The code isn’t exactly a secret as it’s available for anyone to find online, but memorizing it will definitely give you bit of intel most patrons don’t have. It can also be used to plan your shopping strategy. If you hear four bells, for instance, that means the store is getting crowded, so you should forget about grabbing that second bottle of Two-Buck Chuck and hustle to the checkout line.

[h/t Business Insider]

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13 Secrets of Professional Naming Consultants
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When it comes to companies and products, names matter. A slick name makes a company sound trendy and cool, while a terrible name can have customers running into the arms of the competition. Unsurprisingly, many companies take the process very seriously, hiring outside naming consultants who either work within creative agencies or at agencies devoted entirely to naming. We got a few to give us the scoop on how their job really works.

1. IT’S NOT JUST A CREATIVE TASK.

“The notion that namers are hippies and poets jotting down names on cocktail napkins couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Mark Skoultchi, a partner at Catchword, the agency that named the Fitbit Flex and Force and Starbucks’s Refreshers line.

The stakes are just too high for naming to be a purely creative project, because a bad name can break a product. Consider, for example, the major slump in sales ISIS chocolates experienced in 2014 when people began to associate their name with the Islamic State. (The company rebranded itself to Libeert.) And when the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, the diet candy company Ayds chose not to change its name, eventually suffering the consequences. (When asked about it, an official from its parent company, Jeffrey Martin, famously snapped, “Let the disease change its name.”) By 1988, the company conceded that the name was hurting sales, and changed it to Diet Ayds. But the product was soon pulled from shelves altogether.

“When you’re naming your kid or nicknaming your car it’s more creative. There aren’t as many consequences,” says Nina Beckhardt, founder and CEO of the Naming Group, a consultancy that works with Chevrolet, Kohler, and Capital One. “But when you’re brand naming, the name you select has to be strategically impeccable. It has to make sense and at least not offend millions of people around the globe.”

2. NAMES CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD.

Naming isn’t just a subjective choice—really liking a name doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your company. “People want to get more subjective with it,” Beckhardt says. “They’ll say that name reminds me of my cat or rhymes with such and such. That observation is so enormously unimportant compared with the fact that the name successfully checks all the boxes we created at the beginning.” The point is to find a name that gets across what the company wants to convey, rather than one that every person involved in the naming process loves.

For example, when The Naming Group was working with Capital One to develop their first brand-name rewards credit card, the company had to consider who they were trying to target—travelers. The result was the Venture card, a name with a connotation of adventure and exploration that’s “not right on the nose.”

3. IT HELPS TO HAVE A BACKGROUND IN LINGUISTICS—OR TRADEMARK LAW.

Though naming is essentially an exercise in corporate strategy, naming agencies don’t just employ people with backgrounds in branding and marketing. They also need linguistics experts to help generate names that make sense, have positive connotations in modern usage (i.e. nothing that might have a negative slang meaning), and inspire the associations the company wants to elicit.

Coming up with a name also involves some legal legwork. You can’t name your company or product after something that’s already trademarked. And if you want to expand internationally, the name needs to be available to trademark in other countries as well. That means naming agencies are often looking for people with a background in trademark law.

4. YOU HAVE TO COME UP WITH HUNDREDS OF NAMES, IF NOT THOUSANDS.

“Naming is a game of numbers,” Beckhardt says. “You have to have a lot of options.” Even if the potential names sound great, many are bound to run into trademark conflicts or not work in another language.

So before namers get together to present feasible ideas to the clients they’re working with, they come up with hundreds, if not thousands, of potential options. “At Catchword, 200 names is scratching the surface,” Skoultchi says.

5. BUT THE CLIENT WON’T SEE THEM ALL.

When faced with too many options to choose from, people tend to freeze up in what psychologists call “choice overload” [PDF]. Whether you’re talking about choosing between similar items at the grocery store or an endless array of potential product names, it’s overwhelming to consider all the possibilities. Namers take their initial 200 or 1000 ideas and whittle them down to present only the best (and most feasible) options. At Catchword, that means about 50 names.

But namers can also face the opposite challenge. If a client gets too set on a single idea, it blinds them to what might be better options still out there. “For each project I will get and try to get the client attached to a number of different names,” Beckhardt says, rather than looking for “the prince charming” of names.

6. A NAME CAN BE TOO ORIGINAL

The amount of meaning a name communicates lies along a continuum. On the one end, there’s an overly descriptive name. On the other end, there’s so-called “empty vessel” names, which are so far removed from actual words that they come off as meaningless. The ideal name falls somewhere in the middle, but if you end up too far toward the “empty vessel” side, your name will be a target for mockery.

Consider Tribune Publishing, the media company that owns the Chicago Tribune. In 2016, it rebranded as “tronc,” a name derived from the phrase “Tribune online content.” The move was widely mocked, for good reason. In The New York Times, a branding expert said the name “creates an ugliness.” The new name became a black eye for the company rather than a sign of its forward-thinking vision.

Empty vessel names are particularly common in the tech world, but played right, it can work. Google could be considered an empty vessel name, but it does have an origin, albeit one that most people aren’t familiar with. A googol is a huge number—10100—which makes sense within the context of the search engine’s ability to aggregate results from a near-infinite number of sources online.

7. A NAME CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD IN ENGLISH.

One reason naming agencies need linguists is that unless a company is only marketing its products domestically, the name needs to work in multiple languages. If your product sounds slick in English but means something dirty in Norwegian, you’ve got a problem.

Plenty of companies have found this out the hard way. The Honda Fit was almost the Honda Fitta, but the company changed the name when it realized that “fitta” was slang for female genitalia in Swedish. The company later started calling it the Honda Jazz outside of North America.

Different languages also pronounce certain letters differently, which gets awkward if you’re not careful. “When we’re developing names we have to prepare for those mispronunciations to make sure that isn’t going to affect how people understand the product,” Beckhardt says. In Germany, Vicks sells its products under the name Wick, because the German pronunciation of the original brand name (in which a “v” is pronounced like an “f”) sounds like a slang word for sex.

Even if the name isn’t vulgar, it might have connotations in another language that you don’t want people associating with your product. In Mandarin, Microsoft’s Bing has to go by a different name, because “bing” means disease. Part of the naming process, according to Beckhardt, is “making sure that if we’re naming a skin care product, it doesn’t mean acne in Japanese.” She adds that at one point, while working on a rebranding project, The Naming Group came up with a name that ended up meaning “pubic hair” in another language.

8. IF YOU DON’T COME UP WITH A FOREIGN NAME, CUSTOMERS MIGHT DO IT FOR YOU.

Famously, when Coca-Cola first started selling its products in China in 1927, it didn’t immediately come up with a new name that made sense in Chinese characters. Instead, shopkeepers transliterated the name Coca-Cola phonetically on their signage, leading to odd meanings like “bite the wax tadpole.” In 1928, Coke registered a Chinese trademark for the Mandarin 可口可乐 (K'o K'ou K'o Lê), which the company translates as “to permit mouth to be able to rejoice.”

9. COMING UP WITH A CHINESE NAME IS ESPECIALLY COMPLICATED.

Foreign companies are eager to expand into China’s growing market, but it’s not as easy as transliterating an American name, like LinkedIn, to Chinese characters. In some cases, companies use Chinese names that sound somewhat like their English equivalent, but in others, they go by names that don’t sound similar at all. “It’s this crazy art form of balancing phonic similarity and actual meaning,” Beckhardt says.

Labbrand, a consultancy founded in Shanghai, helps American companies come up with names that work for Chinese markets. For LinkedIn’s Chinese name, Labbrand was able to come up with a name that both sounded a bit like the original and still had a meaning in line with the company’s purpose. 领英 (lǐng yīng) means “leading elite.” For other companies, though, it makes more sense to come up with a name that sounds nothing like the American brand, yet has a strategic meaning. For Trip Advisor, Labbrand came up with “猫途鹰 (māo tú yīng)," a combination of the characters for "owl" and "journey"—a reference to the company’s owl logo and its role as a travel site.

Some names, however, are just straight translations. Microsoft is 微软 (weiruan), two characters that literally mean “micro” and “soft.”

10. THERE ISN'T USUALLY AN ‘A-HA’ MOMENT.

“Oftentimes, clients are expecting epiphany, to have an ‘a-ha!’ moment, but those moments are more rare than you think,” Skoultchi says. “It’s not because the name ideas aren't great, it’s because most people have trouble imagining” what the names will sound like in the real world. “Context, visual identity, taglines, copy, and other factors influence our perception of a name and how appealing it is. Imagine just about any modern blockbuster brand, and now imagine it’s just a word on a page, in Helvetica, with little to no marketing support.”

To help customers understand how a name might look in real-world settings, Catchword gives it a slightly jazzier graphic design that’s more representative of what it would look like in the market, adding in potential taglines and ad copy to make it look more realistic.

11. YOU’RE NOT JUST NAMING ONE THING.

The Naming Group, for example, has worked with Capital One, Kohler, and Reebok to come up with names for multiple products, and they've also worked to establish perimeters for future names. That's because what you call one product could have implications for your future products—and ideally, the names of different products across a company should work together.

Take the example of Fitbit. The company has a naming style that involves single-syllable, simple English words that are designed to convey something unique about the product. They also had to fit the tiny devices themselves, so length mattered. The name “Flex” went to the first wristband tracker, and the most advanced tracker became “Force.” Later, the first tracker that measured heart rate would become "Charge," and the one designed for high-intensity athletes, "Blaze." All the names have a similar vibe while managing to convey something about the specific device.

As a cautionary tale, imagine a world in which Steve Jobs was allowed to use his preferred name for the iMac, “MacMan.” (Luckily, an ad agency creative director talked him out of it.) Given how the “i” in iMac influenced Apple’s future naming conventions, would there later have been a PodMan and PhoneMan? Choosing the iMac led to a larger branding scheme—the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad—that's instantly recognizable. “The PhoneMan” just wouldn’t have the same ring.

12. COMPANIES OFTEN WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE.

There’s a perception that naming should come from within a company—that if you build a product, you automatically know the best thing to call it. But that’s often not the case. Companies usually don’t employ professional namers on staff and don’t have any set guidelines on how to come up with new names. And it’s often not until the last minute that they realize they need outside help to decide on a great moniker. “It can be so emotional,” Beckhardt explains. “Companies come to you pulling their hair out, [saying] ‘We just can’t decide; we haven’t found it yet.’”

13. IT ONLY TAKES A FEW WEEKS.

Naming something usually doesn’t involve a lightning bolt of inspiration, but neither do companies slave over names for months. According to Beckhardt, the process takes anywhere from four to six weeks, though they can expedite the process if they really need to.

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